Past the peak…but still the worst in Europe

Matt Hancock: Likely to meet target of 100,000 when yesterday’s numbers are released later.

How well – or not – has Britain done? With the UK set to be the European nation worst affected by Covid-19, we take a forensic look at the numbers behind the coronavirus catastrophe.

The UK is labouring towards its target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. Just over 81,000 tests took place on Wednesday but, last night, cabinet minister Grant Shapps told BBC’s Question Time there was capacity for more.

The government was “likely to get very close to or meet” its target of 100,000 daily coronavirus tests, he said, when yesterday’s numbers are confirmed later today.

But the government was criticised by NHS Providers for using headline numbers as a distraction from the fact that there was no clear testing strategy.

And although Boris Johnson, yesterday, announced that the UK was now past the peak – news which dominates most of the headlines today – the underlying truth is that the UK’s death toll is fast approaching that of Italy.

Indeed, many experts are convinced that the UK will end up soon with the dubious distinction of having the worst numbers in Europe.

Tests. The UK has so far carried out 901,905 tests for the coronavirus, with 687,369 people tested. This is fewer than the totals in Germany, Spain, Italy, and the US. Until recently, the UK tests have been focused on a few frontline NHS workers and those with symptoms already inside hospitals.

Infections. As of Wednesday afternoon, 171,253 people in the UK had tested positive for the coronavirus. Despite difficulties in rolling out tests, the UK has about the same number of confirmed cases as Germany and France – and fewer than Spain, Italy, and the US. The true figure is expected to be much higher, as only a small minority of those with symptoms has been able to get tested. Many more are thought to be asymptomatic. But it is still highly unlikely that the UK or any country has achieved herd immunity.

Deaths (case fatality rate). Over 26,770 people have now died as a result of the coronavirus in the UK. This puts the country third in the world rankings behind Italy and the USA. This number suggests that over 15% of people who have contracted coronavirus in the UK have died. But this does not mean one in seven of those who caught the virus will die. It reflects the fact that most of those infected will not have been tested. In Iceland, where there have been more tests, the true mortality rate seems to be below 1%.

Deaths (adjusted). Listing the number of deaths does not provide much context – especially without widespread testing. A better metric might be Covid-19 deaths per million, which on a recent count of 388 puts the UK third, behind Belgium (632) and Italy (452). Another option is to just look at the number of excess deaths over a certain time-frame. According to that measure, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands have all been hit worse than the UK.

So, how well – or not – has Britain done?

Apples and oranges

Awfully. One chilling study monitoring 17,000 Covid-19 patients in the UK found that of those admitted to hospital, one in three had died. Such a figure was comparable to Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Though testing capacity has now been ramped up, for too long the UK was fighting the outbreak blind. The virus has torn through care homes and is expected to kill more people than the Blitz.

Not too badly. Anyway, we will never know. As in any crisis of this scale, many infections and deaths were somewhat inevitable. No major western nation was able to avoid some sort of outbreak. A different government might have done a better job, but could also have done a far worse one. Further, it is almost impossible to compare the numbers in a fair and equal way.

You Decide

  1. If you are based in the UK, do you feel like the country has done a bad job in responding to the pandemic?
  2. Do you think it is possible to make fair comparisons between data from different countries?


  1. Explore the “Our World in Data” link below, adding in different countries, looking at different time-frames. Make a list of your five most interesting findings.
  2. Practise being a data analyst. Have a look through the numbers on the Johns Hopkins website. Write a list of possible reasons you think some countries are worse affected than others. Test some of your theories using other publicly available data (population density, number of annual visitors).

Some People Say...

“Torture the data, and it will confess to anything.”

Ronald Coase (1910-2013), British economist and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For the UK to begin moving out of lockdown, the government is aiming to roll out 800,000 tests a week, so that all frontline workers can be tested once a week. We also know that more people have died from causes related to Covid-19 than is currently being recorded by government statistics. The Financial Times has estimated that total figure to be around 47,000 in the UK.
What do we not know?
We don’t know how much difference any policy change could have made. Pushing back against commentators criticising his party for the rising death toll, Tory MP Jonathan Gullis pointed out the difficulty in comparing the data from different countries. “With regards to the media’s sick obsession over the total tragic deaths from COVID-19, you can’t lazily compare the total number when countries have different density, population size, and age demographic.”

Word Watch

The top or summit. In epidemiology (the study of infectious disease), the peak represents the moment at which the highest number of people in a population are infected and able to pass on the virus.
Uncertain; suspicious.
Someone who is infected by a virus or a disease but does not show any signs of ill-health. If you are asymptomatic, you will very likely not know that you are ill. In Iceland, which has tested more than 10% of its population, they estimate half of all coronavirus cases to be asymptomatic.
Herd immunity
Usually used to describe the effectiveness of vaccination, the term refers to having enough people in a given community who have recovered from a viral infection and, therefore, cannot pass it on. This slows the spread of a disease and prevents a population from future outbreaks.
A system or standard of measurement. For example, counting the number of times you smile during a funny film would be a good metric of how much you enjoyed it.
Excess deaths
Compared with previous years, the number of extra deaths recorded during a certain time frame. These are not necessarily Covid-19 patients, but a large proportion is very likely to be.
An infectious and frequently fatal disease marked by fever and severe internal bleeding, spread through contact with infected body fluids. There was a significant outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
The German word for “lightning”, used to describe the period of WW2 when the Nazi air force continually bombarded Britain – killing 32,000 civilians.


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